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Will Public Education Survive the Embrace of Big Money?


Dear Deborah,

My guess is that we will have a long time, not months, but years, to discuss national standards and a national curriculum. The question won’t go away. It is one of the items on Secretary Duncan’s “to-do” list. In 1995, I wrote a book on the subject and predicted that we would inevitably move in this direction, as it made no sense to have 50 different ways of measuring how we are doing in math and science. I believe that NCLB has sharpened the contradictions and laid bare the confusion of so many different “standards,” as well as the yawning gap between state and federal standards.

My fear is that this effort will be captured by the NCLB basic-skills crowd or the P21 ignorance-is-bliss crowd. Or both! So you can see the seeds of doubt have been planted. I have always thought there was a downside; it’s in my nature to look at all sides. I hope I am wrong.

In terms of the bleak scenario you laid out, we have no differences to bridge. It appears that the Big Money has placed its bets on dismantling public education. Mayor Bloomberg decided long ago, when he took over New York City’s public schools, that their biggest problem was too much democracy. So he persuaded the legislature to turn control over to him, and he eliminated any vestige of democracy. We both know how messy democracy is; people make mistakes. But with a vigilant press, there is always a chance to make changes, correct errors.

That’s not the situation in New York City. Michael Bloomberg does not confront a vigilant press. The press barons applaud his every move, and there has been no vigilance, no scrutiny, and no outcry against his authoritarian mode of governance. Those who don’t like it, most especially parents, are voiceless, except for blogs. (The best is here.)

There have recently been a series of public hearings, held by the state Assembly’s Committee on Education, on whether to renew mayoral control. At each hearing, parents and advocates have expressed their frustration about what has happened to the city’s schools in recent years, the disdainful way in which the Department of Education treats them, and their fear that the next public school to die will be their own.

Under Chancellor Klein, the Department of Education has closed nearly 100 regular public schools and replaced them with charter schools or new schools. Unlike other cities where charters have to supply their own facilities, New York City gives them space in public school buildings, and sometimes the entire building. Currently, the DOE is closing a neighborhood public school in Harlem and putting a charter school in its place. The DOE tells angry parents that they should be thrilled to have choice, but parents worry that their children will have no neighborhood school to attend.

All such decisions are made without consultation. And the chancellor goes around the country boasting of his success in closing established schools and replacing them with new schools and charter schools.

Most bizarre is when the mayor and chancellor show up at charter school rallies and tell the parents that their local public schools are no good and that they are lucky to be in a charter. I often wonder at such times if these two have forgotten that they are responsible for the 98 percent of the city’s public school children who are in regular schools. It’s like the president of Macy’s telling his customers to shop at Wal-Mart.

Of course, this course of action has the enthusiastic endorsement of the Billionaire Boys Club, that is, the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, and the Walton Foundation. They know what needs to be done, and they don't see the point of listening to such unenlightened types as parents and teachers.

At some point the music and the upheaval will stop. But when it does, will there still be a public school system? Or will the schools all be run by hedge fund managers, dilettantes, and EMOs?



In my more paranoid moments, I have thought for yers that the point of NCLB, for those at its core, was to destroy public education. You are feeding my paranoia.

One (slightly skewed, paranoid) way to look at this is to consider all those tax dollars being spent on public education, and they aren't making anyone rich! Positively UnAmerican. I can easily imagine businessmen sitting around (probably smoking cigars) and thinking, "Now, if we could only find a way to pry those tax dollars loose and put them into private hands. . . "

And then add in the fact that business managers are taught that a good manager can manage anything, s/he doesn't need to actually know anything about the specific business (or so I was told once by an HP manager. He was quite sure that if only educators would allow themselves to be managed by properly trained businessmen, public education would be fixed in no time.) I don't know how widespread this tenet is among business people, but it sure would help explain the attitude that they know more about what to do about public schools than educators do.

Not that the system doesn't need some stirring up, or that people outside the schoolhouse walls can't contribute in a positive way to that. But to think they will necessarily do better precisely because they are untrained outsiders--that's problematic.

Now I have to go sit myself down and talk myself out of my paranoid mindset. . .

Who ever said that every child should go to a public school? When did we make this the pinnacle of democracy?

Diane, all of this sounds as though the pre-Bloomberg schools were completely responsive to parents and children; that mayoral control has brought no benefits to any of the cities which have tried it; and that we should go back to 1985, when it was impossible to even get books and toilet paper into classrooms, let alone hold a school somewhat responsible for having children learn to read and find a third pound on a digital scale.

I don't know New York, and I am sure there is much to do.

Yet this small rant here doesn't help me as an engineer/builder know what to do to move kids forward. (It sounds instead, I apologize for saying, much like the tired whining of entrenched labor woeing the reduction of dues paid to the local and state education associations). I see here, again with apologies, no proposals to reinvigorate parent and citizen involvement, no suggestions for a labor force which is professionally responsible, no mechanisms to insure that someone in the end keeps the pressure on for improvement.

What better alternative are you suggesting for New York and cities of its ilk?

Most of us here agree, I think, that our students need cultural literacy and a certain minimal shared set of memes. We all should learn the first bits of the Gettysburg Address and the Preamble. Such a goal is part of the allure of free public education.

Yet why then make the broad sweep that every child who, of a certain date in one decade, attended public school, must forever be in a public school? Why do we see that as some great national goal? Are we to toss out as irrelevant the President and his wife and Justice Thomas because they did not do 13+ years in standard, middle of the road public schools?

Are we to say that the Baptist Temple graduates here, or the home schooled, or the Montessori kids are second rate citizens, not real Americans because they did not attend real schools run solely by real State Certified, State Paid, State Trained, State Retired, Ed Association Dues Paying teachers?

Is that how we now measure Democracy?

Now, I don't like the theory of Mayoral control of schools much more than you. Is going backward the best alternative?

If we are to go back in time, why can't we pick the date when Catholic and Jewish schools had a much higher proportion of the graduates? Or do you claim that 1992 was the era of perfection in democratic education?

When it comes to education, I have never been a fan of the theory that we should "let 100,000 flowers bloom." I do think that the state has a role to play in funding, supplying and maintaining schools, as well as setting basic academic standards and requirements related to civil rights, safety, and the qualifications of those who receive public funding.
I wish I could point you a link to an article called "Prejudice the Garden Towards Roses?" written by Isaac Kandel, one of the great educators of the first half of the 20th century, but his works are not on the Web. Kandel made the same point: If you let anything at all grow, you will be sure to get lots of weeds. If you want a rose garden, you have to tend to the soil, do lots of weeding, and take care of your tender plants. I'd say that is a good philosophy of education.
And by the way, I'd love to see a growth of Catholic schools, but as you probably know they are being killed by competition with free charter schools that masquerade as Catholic schools.


You state, "the Billionaire Boys Club...knows what needs to be done, and they don't see the point of listening to such unenlightened types as parents and teachers." Let's try to remember how long the educational establishment had control of our schools and what the results were.

The BBC is not in this for recognition and clearly not for reward. I honestly believe folks like Bill and Melinda Gates are sincere in their efforts and are just trying to improve the status quo. They obviously don’t have all the answers. They simply have the resources to fund outside agents engaging in alternative methods and strategies.

I often think of all the slugs (CEO’s) from companies like AIG and the professional athletes with their multi-million dollar salaries and bonuses to boot, who never lift a finger to help the less fortunate unless it somehow benefits them directly.

Paul Hoss

The first big initiative of the BBC was the Gates' small schools proliferation plan. After paying out $1 billion or more to districts to break up their schools, Gates discovered that kids in small high schools actually got lower test scores in reading and math than their peers in large high schools. Oops, time for a do-over.
Do you think that we should relinquish all public control of public education and turn the schools over to those with the most money?

The BBC are heedless and ignorant and arrogant.

Bill Gates decides he knows best how to fix our schools by creating hundreds of new small schools, goes in and causes chaos and disruption, and then later admits that perhaps he was wrong.

But does this lead him to discover any humility? No, because now he is convinced he has new answers to be imposed on the system that are even more flawed and destructive: more charters and teacher merit pay.

You would think these guys would learn from their mistakes not to be so certain the second time around. But they don't.


As a midwesterner, I have to say I am envious of the "voice" of parent in NYC. The power of the billionaire boys is not new, nor unique. Getting Around Brown, by Gregory S. Jacobs is an excellent history of the sacrifice of education to the concerns of real estate and retail in the heartland. "Keeping things quiet" was a more lucrative aim than ensuring equity in education--and children are still suffering. The kinds of parent and community groups that no one is listening to in New York simply don't exist here. The right of school boards to deny speaker rights has been carefully explored and adhered to, despite a landmark case or two.

There are, of course, the requisite dog and pony shows when schools are considered for closing--and our superintendent is brave enough to show up in person to confront parents with the bad news--but the idea of actually considering parents as the purveyors of any community sense to which school employees should be paying attention, well that has long been absent. I think the prevailing attitude is that the parents "aren't ready" for that kind of involvement, or want stupid or silly things, or don't understand reality.

But, I have also experienced concerns in other public areas with regard to the amount of expense that goes into public services and the ever present folks who would love a chance to do better for those bucks. In my state, I experienced the state human services department move from being a funder of local services to being a "quality purchaser of services." This meant a willingness to "outsource" Medicaid to a number of HMO providers. Some for-profit and some not-for-profit. The state saw this as an opportunity to save money (and get out of the bad guys seat with regard to payment levels). Insurance companies saw this as a way to move into a new market with the government as a pay source. Health services already serving the poor (both with and without Medicaid coverage) saw this as an intrusion into their sphere--bleeding off the patients who had a pay source and leaving behinid the medically indigent. This was supposed to phase in over several years--with some controls, such as a minimum number of providers in each county. In the end, it was never carried out across the state. What was intended to be a state-wide mandatory requirement is now only an option and only in the most populous counties. The reality is that despite the gross number of dollars, medical care for the poor is an expensive proposition, the insurers not only had to compete for patients, they had to compete for doctors, and the for-profit HMOs one by one gave it up. I think that there is currently one not-for-profit still in operation, the program is not mandatory.

So, in the end, I don't have lot of concerns about Big Money taking over education to run it for a profit--so long as education remains a right guarateed to the citizenry. Are there concerns associated with the influence wielded by those who stand to gain in secondary ways (such as the value add of a "good" educational system to real estate values in certain suburban tracts). I think that there are--and these things remain a concern.

But, I don't see these concerns being fostered in the atmosphere that Jean alludes to, and which I have certainly observed plenty of, sort of a "business bad, education good," chant. While I might stop a tad short of believing that a good manager can manage anything, schools (and school systems) desperately need good managers. The flip side of that coin is the belief that former teachers make good managers of schools, or school HR departments, or transportation departments--practically anything but finance (nobody seems to want to touch that one). As long as we teeter-totter between untrained outsiders and untrained insiders we are not going to make much progress. Certainly there is much to be learned from business with regard to recruitment, ongoing training, evaluation, communication. These are all shortfall areas in public education--yet we continually reject the knowledge of others in this area because they are not educators, they don't understand the classroom.

Is there a successful corporation anywhere that has stayed in business for any length of time by ignoring the needs and wishes of their constituency?

Probably not.

"but parents worry that their children will have no neighborhood school to attend"...

Let's be clear: charter schools are public schools. And if a failing "neighborhood school" is replaced by a charter school... you still have a "neighborhood school". Run now, by a charter.

Charters are all different and they are not necessarily run by for-profit outsiders. Mine for example is a fiscally independent, public, charter school run by the staff. We are innovative, agile, solvent, child-centered, high achieving, and extraordinarily effective:


And why is it that when there is a model that works in education, it is dismissed as an "isolated case". When there is a disastrous model, on the other hand, it is evidence of how screwed up public schools are.

The uniqueness of public schools as independent organizations is, after all, another product of our democracy.

I don't know what rules your charter schools follows, but in NYC where I live, charters choose their students in a lottery. Some parents are not sophisticated enough to apply. Parents who live nearby may enter the lottery and lose. If they don't have a neighborhood public school and they are rejected by the local charter school, they have a problem. Also the charter schools may expel children for any reason. The regular public schools cannot do that. In fact, they have to accept the kids kicked out of charter schools.
Can you see why some parents might think that their local charter schools is not their neighborhood public school?


Yes I can see that parents would feel disenfranchised. My school is in California and we cannot (and would not) discriminate against our students. If we reach our maximum enrollment, which we have, we then enroll new students by lottery.

Sounds like NY needs to revisit the state laws that govern its charters. At the same time, I don't want to lose my main point that charter schools (and charter laws) are all different. The 5 in my district are outperforming our counterparts with the same demographics (We are near the border to Tijuana) Why? Innovation, resources, and leadership. You just can't paint them with a broad brush as part of the conspiracy to destroy public education.

In fact, the successful ones provide a model for how all schools could be transformed.


The whole concept of "neighborhood" schools has a lot of baggage. Recall that many have used "neighborhood schools" as code for segregation. I think that what you are actually talking about would be an "assigned school" that is close by--assuming that NYC still maintains a responsibility to provide schooling for all residents and the charters are solely schools of "choice." I can recall some of the same sentiments being expressed locally when central city schools were being made over (by the district) as alternative, magnet or lottery schools (depending on you local vernacular). The intent was to provide some shades of different experiences and to draw in families otherwise likely to leave the district, and to do so in some disadvantaged areas where "less sophisticated" families were likely to see it and want in. Many objected to this--using the same verbiage of the loss of "neighborhood" schools. In actuality, those that were successful were far more successful than any of the "neighborhood" schools in "community" building. And I would take community over neighborhood any day.

Kevin is right--there may be issues with the regulation of the charters, if the things that you accuse them of are true. I don't see the lottery system as being a problem (in fact, the opposite, it strikes me as the epitome of fairness). But I hear the same things locally about charter schools only taking the "best" students and freely discharging students for any reason. The reality is that they are governed by the same laws in those areas as any other public school. Some may get away with some creaming (as I assure you some regular public schools do)--but the data overall don't support that they are educating a better quality of student here.


I remember when Gate started the small school experiment. It was a theory everyone was convinced would make a difference. As we all now know, it didn't turn out to be "the" answer.

I absolutely do not believe we should relinquish all control of public education and turn the schools over to those with the most money. And I don’t believe we have relinquished all control to Gates, Broad, Walton, et al. These people have simply put up a great deal of their own money in an attempt to find answers as to what could potentially help our public schools.

Do these Foundations have a great deal of say as to what gets tried and what doesn't? Of course they do. It's their money and they are using it in an attempt to improve the life chances for (primarily) poor/minority kids. I consider that a good thing. In addition, these Foundations have reputable staffs extensively researching their theories. These are not pell mell suppositions pulled out of thin air willy-nilly.

Paul Hoss

One of the more troubling buzzwords I hear in connection with charter schools is "buy-in." The idea is that for a school to work, the entire staff and community should subscribe to its philosophy, goals, and methods.

There is a degree of truth to that; strong schools do have a philosophy and a shared sense of purpose. But healthy institutions also need dissenters--people who ask unpleasant questions and challenge assumptions. They need those who stand apart.

Charters would drive out such people. Their proponents would talk about "win-win" situations-- how there's a "just-right" school for everyone. The problem is, for many there is no "just-right" school, nor should there be. We need the slight mismatch, the imperfection--and so do the schools themselves.

Unlike charters, public schools cannot drive out dissenting adults any more than they can drive out unwanted students. That is part of their beauty, their blessing, and their difficulty.

Diana Senechal

Diane Senechal--

Once again, painting "charter schools" with a broad brush is misleading. We can not "drive out" anybody-- not teachers, parents, students, dissenters, revolutionaries, geniuses, or misfits. In fact, I think I just defined my school community!!!

I also worry about the influence of the super-rich on public schools. They are not viewed with the same skepticism that most of us get. I saw Bill Gates appear before a Congressional committee to promote HB-1 visas. I was actually embarrassed to see the obsequious behavior of our representatives. I am surprised how easily some Americans accept the idea that rich people and their colleagues have better ideas and are entitled to try them out on the rest of us because it is their money.

I agree with you that public schools are part of what make up our democracy. It is through our schools that we meet each other and work together. Parents, children, teachers, and other community members that may not otherwise meet work together with a common goal that benefits the whole community/neighborhood. I am not always happy with public schools. People make decisions I don't like. A superintendent and school board in a nearby town recently voted to remove Bless Me Ultima from the curriculum. It was an absurd decision, democratically made. That's the problem with democracy - it's messy, and sometimes the wrong people win - at least until the next time.

I worry about charters and vouchers because I think they allow us to remove ourselves from the community. We move into gated communities and choose charter schools where the families are like our own. I think it separates communities. When we could be working together to improve everyone's opportunities, we are working only towards improving our own children's lot. Already people tend to stop thinking about schools once their children are grown. With the Balkanization of the school system, people in the community will have even less at stake.

I worry that we will become more divided, less "We the People", and more "what's in it for me."

Paul, Don't put me in the "everyone" category who was convinced that small schools would make a difference. Nor ANY of my colleagues in NYC, who objected before the small schools actually came to fruition. Any one of us could have predicted it. It was obvious to anyone paying attention.

But the worst part was what else we already knew. Not only didn't it make a difference, we knew it would make things dramatically worse - and it did. I used to think the NYC system was dysfunctional, and now I think those were the good old days, because if there's one thing I've learned in education is that - things can ALWAYS get worse.

So I have little patience for those who say that things need to change, and therefore any change is better than what we've got. Some changes, such as the small schools movement, at least in how it has been implemented on a mass scale, most specifically by breaking up large high schools and replacing them with multiple small schools, have drastic negative effects on students' academic achievement - regardless of the phony data cited by the destructors. And those of us in the trenches saw it coming a mile away, but nobody was listening because they all thought they knew better, and now it is said that "everybody" thought it would work out. Sorry, but that's just not true.


Likewise, please consider my actual words. I wasn't saying all charter schools were fiefdoms of conformity. I was looking at the concept of "buy-in" and how it could affect a school community.

Nor are public schools immune to the "buy-in" concept. But public schools (until lately in NYC) have enjoyed a certain longevity. The school and its staff generally outlasted a given fad. The school as a whole had some perspective on the reigning model. There would always be a few veteran teachers who had seen these fads come and go and who saw through them all.

Now, with our mayor and chancellor recklessly closing and opening schools, we do not have that sort of grounding. A new principal can hire a staff that embraces a given model. Three years later, the model has failed, the staff is gone, and the principal has been replaced. Or else the school has been closed entirely.

Of course I see the value of a philosophy or vision of education. But many schools would seize a narrow model instead. They would say, "We want teachers who will teach our children 21st century skills every moment of every day. We want to see our children blogging. Making videos. Going on the chatboards and chatting with children in Hong Kong." Or: "If you care about the children's success, you will follow this script as it is written." Or: "If you are not willing to work 12-hour days and weekends, this place is not for you, nor is its salary."

Diana Senechal

Diana, all, from someone far afield of the NYC system, I hear things like

A new principal can hire a staff that embraces a given model. Three years later, the model has failed, the staff is gone, and the principal has been replaced. Or else the school has been closed entirely.
and I say 'Hurrah!' What is wrong with this situation? I don't see it.

Is this an optimal end state? Of course not. Is it a desired means path? Maybe not, but who has offered a better method of change?

You did want change didn't you? You refused to accept the old state of urban schools with 50% drop-out rates, rampant illiteracy, bored kids causing trouble, etc? Did you? Or did you really mean, 'yeah, I kind of wanted more kids to get a better education, but only if there wasn't any change, only if my world stayed mostly as it was?'


I would be wary of picking up the threads of an argument and running to the ends of the earth with them. Charter schools (as well as regulation public schools) seeking "buy-in" prior to attempting something new is in no way akin to mind control or the quashing of all dissent. It is, however a shield against exactly the phenomenon that you describe: old-timers who have "lived through everything," and believe that they can see through every reform--and know in advance that it will not work. These are the people who have learned to survive by going into their rooms, closing the doors, and doing what has always worked (or not) for them. Is it any surprise, therefore, that nothing seems to work?

Bill Gates, beyond have access to a lot of bucks, had access to some research, as well as having the "fire in the belly" to bring about improvement in American education. I don't see this as a bad thing. It's interesting how many are now willing to say that they knew all along that small schools wouldn't work, when such a short time ago they were all about "show me the money."

I have spent time as a grant-writer, and I can tell you the most difficult part of my job was in convincing potential grant-seekers of the importance of matching funding opportunities to the mission and program of the agency. Using grant-funding to balance the budget, or to maintain positions, is a good way to guarantee that your agency is pulled in every direction by the changing winds of popularity. Education is fortunate--by comparison to most non-profit grant-seekers--in having a strong, relatively solid and stable base of public tax dollars. In my opinion, blaming Bill Gates for changing programs by offering up funding to do so is just a tad irresponsible.

But the reality is that some the foundation research still stands. Schools do better when they have built-in mechanisms to ensure that every child is known by an adult. High Schools that Work employs the same thing. In places where the staff has embraced the concept and takes seriously their role of knowing and guiding a group of students the results are positive. Where they just go through the motions--not so much (but there were old timers there who already knew it wouldn't work, right?). Using homeroom periods consciously for guided discussions employs the same principles effectively. It is less effective when some portion of the staff is too busy to be bothered by that stuff.

I spent a good many years working in a non-profit social service agency in which we operated by consensus. It was very time consuming. Our weekly staff meetings were sometimes quite long. Board meetings were also frequently lengthy, and it might take months to arrive at a decision to move forward on something. Now, this was within a context of a philosophy that was unquestioned (for instance, putting things up for a vote was not an option). Was there ever disagreement on issues and decisions, conflict in other words? You bet your sweet bippy there was. But in the end, when a decision was made it stood, and we stood. We would not move.

Buy-in IS important. It does not involve any loss of free will--in fact the opposite. And it is far more honest, to my mind, than "going along" and reserving the right to say "I told you so."

I don't know anything about what has happened in NYC other than what I've read here, so I can speak from the bliss of ignorance. But will say that I am surprised to hear that "small schools don't work as well as large schools", and a bit wary of accepting this as a proven result. There are a LOT of factors at play when schools are re-organized, not only size, including the disruption of reorganization itself.

I think people who haven't been through it tend to underestimate the complexity of starting up an enterprise as complex as a school. In any functioning organization, even if it's not functioning all that effectively, there's a lot happening that is invisible to us--that is, that we so take for granted that we are virtually unaware of it, or what it takes to make it happen. Because of this, it takes awhile for the new organization--new school in this case, or new schools plus the organization to coordinate all the new schools--take awhile to get to the point of running smoothly.

And if you add to this frequent re-reorganization, the system would be in a constant state of turmoil in which routines never have time to become estblished and to run smoothly. I would be more inclined to attribute the relative lack of success of the new, smaller schools to these factors than to the size of the schools.

But as I said, I'm speaking from ignorance. I wouldn't want to push the point.

Margo/Mom I love your description of the meetings at your non-profit. But you do see that this is not an accurate description of discussion and consensus-formation at schools. One possibility is to consider that some veteran teachers become jaded for a reason. That is, when, in the process of coming to a consensus, their dissent is squelched, ignored, or (most often) used a evidence that they are not "team-players" (usually by someone who has institutional power and authority over they job, assignment, or working conditions) they learn that schools are places where being a dissenter is more trouble than it is worth. If you read Diana's position on this, I think she goes out of her way to present it in a balanced way. She doesn't say buy-in equals coercion, or that every veteran teacher ought to have veto power.

Margo/Mom's last line, "Buy-in IS important. It does not involve any loss of free will--in fact the opposite," could be true. But I think experience has shown it doesn't HAVE to be true. Is it possible that the idea of buy-in has never been used to create an artificial consensus? That "buy-in" could never be used for these purposes? The devil, as always, is in the details and I think Diana raises the valid point that it is at least possible that that the idealistic-sounding rhetoric of "buy-in" can be misused.

For an interesting take related to this subject take a look at Betty Achinstein's wildly under-read Community, Diversity, and Conflict Among Schoolteachers.

As for the problem of Big Money, the issue is democracy. Does the fact that Bill Gates has billions of dollars, the ability to fund research and educational programs mean that he ought to be have more influence in shaping schools than an average citizen? I have no doubt that he is smart, sincere, and well-intentioned. But so are a lot of folks whose influence in education is far smaller. Should his money buy him greater influence? Worse, being smart, sincere, and well-intentioned does not imply that one's solution will be the best one, or even a good one. Universities have wrestled with these questions for years--trying to figure out how much control over educational and research program to big donors. As always, there is a balance, and it seems legitimate to ponder the proper role (if any) of big money in education.

I've stayed out of this arguement because there is nothing I could say that Diane hasn't already said. I hear people trying to re-characterize her argument (or frame it) but I figued we're in a "I refute it thus" situation.

If people want to deny the existance of reality, and you've wacked your desk with a cane and people still deny reality, then I don't know what to say.

But then, Ed wrote:

"Diana, all, from someone far afield of the NYC system, I hear things like

A new principal can hire a staff that embraces a given model. Three years later, the model has failed, the staff is gone, and the principal has been replaced. Or else the school has been closed entirely.
and I say 'Hurrah!' What is wrong with this situation? I don't see it."

I refute it thus. If Ed and others don't see the problem ...

John Thompson,
I agree with you. People who don't understand that a school has a life and a culture of its own cannot see why there is a problem in just closing it down and opening a new one. What about the new one will be better? Fire the staff, fire the principal, get rid of the kids and start over? This is a recipe for chaos, not improvement.

Kevin Riley,
I am happy to hear that charters in your part of Southern California are doing very well with the same kids as the local public schools. Or better, I hope, given your freedom to innovate.
I don't know of any examples where the local public schools have improved because they learned something from charters. In most cases, the charters are far more traditional than the regular public schools. Maybe that is their lesson?


What you describe (coercion, threats, all that) is not buy-in, or consensus. It is, well, coercion and threats. I would suspect that far more often, however, the issue is not that there are all kinds of misuse of power (and I base this suspicion on the frequent presence of unions, which general help to equalize the balance of power), but that there is underinvolvement in the process of achieving consensus, or buy-in. It's kind of the "yeah, yeah, whatever" approach to decision-making, and can we just move on, now? This requires some confrontation--particulary six months down the road when trying to implement whatever the decision was and half the staff are still dragging their feet (or blatantly refusing and going their own way). Personally, I regard this as dishonest, passive-aggressive sabotage. There is a somewhat kinder viewpoint known in management literature as "the Abilene paradox," where people go along with something that the believe is not likely to bring success, because they perceive peers, or those with decision-making power, as already being committed to the decision. It is not a good way use human intelligence.

Hi All... hope this finds you well!

It has been very interesting to see Diane and Deb merge on many of the key issues concerning what is happening in our public school systems....thanks both of you for taking the time to share your insights and experience.

As someone who has been involved in public education for over 25 years i find your take on our current environments to be an indication that people with on the ground experience have sounded the alarm bell...

"In terms of the bleak scenario you laid out, we have no differences to bridge. It appears that the Big Money has placed its bets on dismantling public education." ( Diane )

We seem to have lost the idea of public schools representing the core of a community and have instead decided to experiment on our most in need communities.

"This is a recipe for chaos, not improvement." ( Diane )

I agree....what we are seeing in many places across America is not a recipe for meaningful transformation and change ( something both Diane and Deb have been doing and writing about for decades ) but a recipe for chaos....

Wondering.... what Diane and Deb would recommend as a strategy to push back against this slash and burn educational reform movement?

be well... mike

Hi Ed... hope this finds you well.

"Who ever said that every child should go to a public school? When did we make this the pinnacle of democracy?"

I believe the concept of public education has a long history in America.

Here are a few people who spoke
about it:

The whole people must take upon themselves the education of the whole
people and be willing to bear the expenses of it. There should not be a
district of one mile square, without a school in it, not founded by a
charitable individual, but maintained at the public expense of the people
— John Adams, U.S. president, letter to John Jebb,1785

The good education of youth has been esteemed by wise men in all ages, as
the surest foundation of the happiness of both private families and of
commonwealths. Almost all governments have therefore made it a principal
object of their attention, to establish and endow with proper revenues, such
seminaries of learning, as might supply the succeeding age with men qualified
to serve the publick with honour to themselves, and to their country.
—Benjamin Franklin, U.S. statesman, inventor, and diplomat,
Proposals Related to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania, 1749

Believing that the survival of the new republic depended on citizens with sufficient education to govern themselves, Thomas Jefferson and
John Adams, among others, supported the creation of publicly funded schools. Jefferson submitted a proposal to the Virginia legislature in 1779 to create free elementary schools across the state for all white boys and girls, regardless of family income....

I am not much sensitized to the term “buy in”, but I think I can very well imagine, if not understand, where Diana is coming from. I can well imagine the term being used coercively. There is such a thing, in my humble opinion, as “group tyranny” Advocates of many trends in education often romanticize group work. It is portrayed as always positive. But it is not. “Non-groupers” such as myself and many others, are painfully aware of the down side of working in groups. This is not to say that it is always a negative experience, of course. Group work can sometimes be productive and satisfying. But it can also be nonproductive and frustrating. Advocates of group work seem to think that the strengths of individual members are always combined when they work together. Call that an “additive group”. But I observe that it seems more common for the weaknesses of individual members to be combined. Call that a “subtractive group”. My main frustration with group work is that often it dilutes individual effort.

But sometimes the frustration of working in groups is due to something more than just the dilution of individual effort. The romantic view of group work does not entertain the idea of group tyranny, of some members running roughshod over others, and using as justification “the group has decided . . . “ But that does happen. Advocates of group work like the idea of decision by consensus. Well, I like that idea too, when it can actually be achieved. But “consensus” can mean different things. Sometimes it simply means those who are outvoted gracefully accept that fact, and support the effort of the group regardless. But “consensus” also can mean that those in the minority must pretend. They must pretend that they are not dissenters. They must pretend that they have seen the light, that they really believe the group is making the right decision. I very much resent it when my graceful acceptance of being outvoted is interpreted as total support of the majority view. And I certainly resent it when self appointed or de facto leaders let me know in subtle ways what I should think and say.

I have written about “groupers” and non-groupers on my website, and how they do not understand each other. I listed a number of “corollaries” of the “let’s do it together” premise (that’s “premise” loosely defined). But I think I neglected to discuss one very important idea, that of group discipline. Advocates of group work would not like to admit that such a concept is valid, or needed, or relevant. Those frustrated by group effort would think otherwise. Those who romanticize group effort are quick to rationalize the coercion, by many subtle or not so subtle ways, that form a part of many groups. Others are painfully aware of that coercion, and resent it. Perhaps Diana has some examples of this sort of thing.

Group dynamics are obviously complicated, and worthy of very serious study. I have no evidence that that has ever been done. It certainly is not taught in ed school. It should be. Is there anything in the psychological literature about it?

"Group dynamics are obviously complicated, and worthy of very serious study. I have no evidence that that has ever been done. It certainly is not taught in ed school. It should be. Is there anything in the psychological literature about it?"


All the more reason that educators should be less reluctant to look at the research in other disciplines. Here's a start: http://www.xecu.net/schaller/management/abilene.pdf


This study is an awesome reference. Thank you mucho. We are in the middle of conducting an analysis of how a great, consensus-driven idea went South in a hurry. This could help explain it.

Sorry everyone for interrupting the spirited discussion... please continue...


Excellent post for those of us seemingly out of touch with the reality of making schools smaller. It would have seemed a no-brainer to believe if you reduce the student population it would also make for fewer problems. Obviously that didn't happen. Thanks for your message.

I wonder if the same would hold true for smaller class sizes. I had a fifth grade class one year of 33 and another year I had a fourth grade class of 16. Both were unique. While the fifth grade class was unquestionably more work for me I strongly maintain they had as good a year (academically) as any class I had.

Guess I'd have to say class size depends on a number of variables; the makeup of the class, the teacher, parental support, administrative support, special ed support, etc, etc.

Let's agree that both misuse of power (coercion masquerading as consensus) and passive/aggressive failure to engage the processes of consensus exist. Further let's agree that exact extent of each problem is an empirical question. Let's even further agree that way to investigate such empirical questions is with skepticism on both sides, so as to avoid any possibility of confirmation bias. Might we then acknowledge that the political environment and policy discourse around such issues as teacher unions, the influence private foundations, charter schools, are not generally conducive to this kind of rigorous skepticism? I ask that as a serious question.

As I read, I find that loosely supported notions of schools staffed by teachers concerned mostly with their own self interest. In your posts you say, "I would suspect that far more often, however, the issue is not that there are all kinds of misuse of power . . . but that there is underinvolvement in the process of achieving consensus, or buy-in."

I'm willing to admit that I might have a hair-trigger for seeing high-minded reforms as carefully crafted manipulations (perhaps because I notice that the rhetoric of collaboration and consensus has conveniently coincided with the aggressive centralization of authority over schools).

Let's bridge our differences though by inviting teachers into the conversation about the direction of schools by openly declaring that we will not view their criticism of certain projects or reform as selfish resistance or mindless intractability. Let's simultaneously condemn the misuse of power and going along to get along. But mostly let's agree to reserve judgment (says the voice of Nick Carraway in my head)until we really know what is going on in a particular school context rather than assuming that our general intuition about these things is correct. Surely, in light of your great link to the lit on the Abilene Paradox, we can agree to that. I think we might even get Deborah to come along with us.

Keith, you put it very well: "...I notice that the rhetoric of collaboration and consensus has conveniently coincided with the aggressive centralization of authority over schools."

The principles of the Abilene Paradox apply only if schools are open to genuine discussion of their policies. Often thoughtful critiques are just seen as trouble and diversion from the agenda. The language becomes skewed in favor of the prevailing model; you need a book to take apart a word.

How does the language get skewed? Someone takes a piece of education research (say, about cooperative learning--say, the work of Slavin et al.) as proof that cooperative learning should be used in classrooms at all times. Of course the research proves nothing of the sort, but few people actually read the stuff closely; they just read the abstract and conclusion, or they take someone else's word for it.

It is wrong to mistake the conclusions of a report for the content of the report itself. The latter is often much more complex and less conclusive. It is also a mistake to assume that more of something is better. Bossert (1989) shows some of the fallacies in this assumption.

Schools in NYC did not individually decide to make cooperative learning the dominant structure. Bloomberg and Klein mandated the workshop model, Accountable Talk, and Balanced Literacy. Each of these, applied with a dose of humility, might have some virtue, but humility is not the strong point of any of these programs or of Bloomberg and Klein.

Many teachers (including myself) have said over and over again that cooperative learning itself is not the problem. The problem lies in its indiscriminate application--the strange assumption that children should be in groups all the time and that certain overt "behaviors" indicate learning.

But cooperative learning (in all classes, in accordance with the reigning models) is not up for negotiation right now. School districts are taking "cooperative learning" to new extremes in the context of "21st century skills" (whose dominant message is that we have to go along with the times). Bring up any objection, and people will simply tell you that "research has shown" this and that, the times are such and such, etc. Well, you can sit down with the research and show that it has not shown the things they say it has shown. You can show that the times are never exactly what we think they are, and that there is much to be said for viewing them in perspective. But that takes time, and everyone is rushed.

Why do so many models and programs claim to be the answer? Why is humility so rare? It seems we are turning our consciences over to ad campaigns. And if schools lose a sense of their own history, then humility will not only be rare. It will be considered a weakness.

Diana Senechal

'Ts funny to drop in this morn, to find myself so in agreement with Diana. Here she nicely argues, at the classroom level, for and against the same things I'm bothered by. And yet how differently we elsewhere have seen the road forward.

Often when I tune in here, it feels as we are discussing some other planet. A planet where the adult inhabitants behave not like humans, but of some other strange species. Yesterday I was just shocked at the language used here to describe individuals and organizations seeking to be part of the solution.

How do otherwise sane people here come to so freely use such unproductive language?

Mike's quotes aside, one of the reasons we do not go down the path of every single child in a public school is precisely well-intentioned results of good thoughtful people caught in Abilene paradoxes.

And so to Keith, who offers what sounds so reasonable:

Let's bridge our differences though by inviting teachers into the conversation about the direction of schools by openly declaring that we will not view their criticism of certain projects or reform as selfish resistance or mindless intractability.
Therein lies the problem, Keith. I cannot freely make such a declaration.

If I have half a day to sit down and say, as to Diana here, what is it in your classroom that concerns you, what is it that you need here, for your students?, then, yes, we have a chance.

Unfortunately, when it comes to policy decisions, that is rarely what happens.

Instead, the conversation is taken over by the self interests of people who have nothing to do with classrooms, or with the adults who come out of the classrooms to operate in the rest of the wide world. Instead, the conversation becomes dominated by the interests of 1) a tiny group of 'activists' who subscribe to a view of human nature long proven incomplete and 2) ed association leaders intent on raising their membership dollars.

Thus, Keith, my first thought when a teacher responds to something is, 'did they think this up themselves? Really? Or did it come off an ed association talking points sheet?

Because teachers are very, very busy people (too busy, for my dollar). Thus have they left the discussing to professional arguers distanced both from the classroom and from the world schools are preparing kids for.

We need models where those who daily make decisions are in contact directly with teachers. Without (well-intentioned?) intermediaries.

The 'cooperative learning paradigm' --or rather the widespread abuse thereof-- illustrates this. It's over-use speaks loudly for why we should break many more schools out of the NYC DOE.

What arguments support this behemoth? Why should we attempt to save it?

Those arguing for charter schools, vouchers, and greater 3rd party participation do not much have in mind the 1000-3000 student districts common here and across much of the country. What we are looking at is silly 100,000 to 1.1 million student districts which impose one-size-fits-all solutions on kids and neighborhoods of massively unique needs.

Why would any of you want that for youth?

Ed writes:

"And so to Keith, who offers what sounds so reasonable:

Let's bridge our differences though by inviting teachers into the conversation about the direction of schools by openly declaring that we will not view their criticism of certain projects or reform as selfish resistance or mindless intractability.
Therein lies the problem, Keith. I cannot freely make such a declaration."

I again refute it thus.

This nation will simply not survive unless we fix our public education system.

Private schools and charter schools will never guarantee quality education for the vast majority of our people.

The idea that the market forces will result in higher quality is erroneous. Market forces produce products that people can afford, based on socio-economic status.

The only solution lies in revamping our public education system in such a way that it demands of students what they must do to really achieve. The lack of this is the fatal flaw in the status quo.


I'm not clear, John, what you are refuting--that Ed cannot accept the statement that Keith wants him to adopt? You would be arguing that he can in fact agree with Keith?

I think that Ed has pointed out some true difficulty in having discussions such as these. While Diana decries the large DOE for laying on universal expectations for all teachers to march to (and I guess we have to accept at face value that this is in fact the case), she also decries the opposite which is the search for "buy-in" in making decisions. Why? Because she has associated "buy-in" with charter schools. Charter schools are the enemy, the evil incarnate. What they are seeking when they talk about buy-in cannot be the antithesis of a top-down bureaucracy telling everyone what they must do (and of necessity leaving lots of gaps for folks to go their own way on the sly). It must, because of who they are, be some trojan horse--merely presenting a desired state, but really only masking a take-over scheme.

I have probably, as I age and mellow, taken some considerable steps back in the direction of an ability to appreciate--or at least accept--capitalism, at least as the likely reality for the rest of my lifetime in this country. I view Roosevelt as a great savior of capitalism through interjecting a sufficient "safety net," of social programs to ward off the excesses that breed discontent and revolution. With this I accept the reality of the "Golden Rule," (he who has the gold gets to make the rules), and have frequently found that those who depend "on the kindness of strangers," (ie: non-profits) must continually engage in efforts to educate philanthropists regarding appropriate ways to respond to needs. Some are more open and beneficent than others. So it goes.

I am not in NYC, and don't pretend to know what goes on there. I can share, however that the things that I hear from teachers in NCY are not too far different from the things that I hear from teachers in the Midwest, and impressions of being forced into "one-size-fits all" solutions, successful schools "labelled as failing," and many other echoes of talking points don't hold up well upon careful examination. Far from an overuse of "cooperative learning," teacher presentation and passive student activities remain the predominant methodologies, particularly above the elementary level. Schools that adopt a set of ideas through the achievement of a level of buy-in are better able to implement those ideas. Schools that merely "act as if," by either "buying in" to some kind of wishy-washy pablum set of statements that don't bother anyone, or require anything of them; or by merely acceding out of an unwillingness to be sufficiently involved in the decision, generally go on as before, neither coming together in any meaningful way, or improving.

I remain hopeful that Bill Gates, and his money, coupled with his intelligence, willingness to learn, and what I am willing to trust is his genuine inclination to find a way that dollars can make a difference, will in fact learn, over time and ultimately make a difference. I remember a movie some years back--a cable documentary about some similarly monied do-gooder who sought to make a difference in Cabrini Greens. His idea was to teach kids gardening so that they could become entrepreneurs and sell their wares to upscale restaurants. His first year was a crashing failure. He didn't understand whole heaps of things--among them that each kid had a parent at home watching out for them and you couldn't just pick them up in a van and take them places without talking to their parent first. He also learned that growing things like tomatoes in the middle of a housing project is like opening a free store. Year one, no produce, no saled. But, he continued. He enlisted some school employee (I forget if he was a teacher, an aide, a social worker or some other kind of helper) to work with the kids. This guy forged relationships with families, and introduced the idea that sometimes you have to interject some things that are merely fun to do. The guy with the money got someone to loan the use of land outside the city, and also planted arugula in the projects. This unfamiliar vegetable crop was left alone. They had sufficient vegetables to sell (under the name Cabrini Greens), both at markets and to Charlie Trotter. Trotter provided an internship to one of the kids, although the first kid gave up.

Now, the guy had the bucks to do what he wanted. But, he also had the ability to move forward after failing in his first misguided attempts. And, he had the support of someone willing to work alongside him to show him the secrets of working with the kids and in the 'hood. Things like this don't happen if we dismiss out of hand as conspirators anyone who approaches with money. Sometimes they just don't know any better.

Ed writes, "Thus, Keith, my first thought when a teacher responds to something is, 'did they think this up themselves? Really? Or did it come off an ed association talking points sheet?"

But this is precisely my point. If your "first thought" is assume that someone is mindless pawn, then if I'm that teacher, my first thought about you is that you are never going to take what I have to say seriously. You will find some excuse to explain away my position. Maybe that explaining away will take the form of some explicit exercise of power, or maybe it will look like a manipulative attempt to create "PLC" or maybe it will be a charter school that requires "buy-in." Maybe your attempt to create this will be sincere on your behalf, but from my perspective it will always look like an attempt to marginalize my contribution, because by your own admission, you were never going to take it seriously in the first place.

Consider one (lest I be accused of creating a false dichotomy) alternative. I admit that maybe some teachers are passive/aggressive, and maybe some are pawns of the union. You admit that at least some high-sounding reformers may a bit of manipulative streak--engineering by deceptive rhetoric and centralization of power their view of "necessary reforms." Then we both promise to be skeptical. We promise to make an explicit effort not to view the other side in the worst possible light. We promise to make such judgments not in vast generalizations about schools, or teachers, or unions, or reformers; but in specific contexts with specific evidence. Now, let's have a conversation.

I want to address the matter of "resistant teachers," which has come up repeatedly on this blog and on others.

There seems to be an assumption by anyone promoting a change of some kind that teachers resist the change because they are lazy or stupid or don't care or are just close-minded people (possibly because they are older). And I'm sure that sometimes one or more of those is the case for a given teacher. However, there may be other reasons, and I think it's important for reformers to keep them in mind.

Research has shown (oops, sorry; let me start over :-) There exists research that indicates that teachers respond to two factors when asked to make a change in their established practices: 1) the amount of additional effort/work it will require from them, and for how long (that is, is it just a matter of a learning curve, after which things will settle down, or is it additional work forever), and 2) will it make a difference for their students? Being told by the person(s) urging the change on them that it will make a difference for the kids is not sufficient; they need to be able to see it for themselves.

If you think about it, this makes sense. Any teacher who has been teaching for ten years or more has been through at least one "reform" effort of some kind, probably several. And we know that trends in education push us first one way, then the opposite. Not so long ago (OK, maybe 20 years or so, I'm getting old), direct instruction was all the rage, at least in some parts of the country. Texas adopted it as its "official" method for awhile, or so I understand. Then coopertive group work (or at least, putting students into groups) became the thing, at least in some parts of the country. Or perhaps the swing is between whole language and phonics. Or "it's about thinking and process" vs "it's about knowledge and facts". We all have our pet beliefs about what the key to improved learning is, and when enough people get together, with enough power behind them, they will try to impose it on everyone, usually with the best of intentions. In a given district, such efforts have a limited life span, then it's on to the next one.

So imagine you are a professional being subjected to these enthusiasms, a new one every few years. Should you uproot your established routines, rework your lesson plans, completely re-tool in order to conform to each of these "reforms"? Knowing another one will be along in a few years? Simply taking outsiders word for it that this will help your students? And do this mostly on your own, after maybe two days of "professional development" introducing the hot new thing (and sometimes without even that)?

Well, maybe. But teaching is a lot of work, and it takes time to get one's own routines and teaching methods (not to say "bag of tricks") down. Odds are that if you do decide to re-tool yourself, before you have time to get the new approach well-established you'll be shoved in some new direction.

So what do you do? What's the professional thing to do? Seems to me you evaluate each new thing, whatever it is, using your own professional judgement, and if--and only if--it seems to offer the solid possibility for benefits to your own students as you know them, and it won't push your workload entirely over the edge, you try it. If, on the other hand, you do not see it working to students' benefit, or you don't understand it and know you don't understand it so that you know you can't implement it well (which happens a lot), or perhaps you can see it would have benefits but the re-tooling process is going to up your workload by 50% for the next two years, or there will be a permanent increase in your workload and you're already near the edge--you resist it, one way or another.

Beginning teachers are more likely to try new things. But once you've been through the process once or twice, and havn't seen the payoff for your students for one reason or another, you get a lot less willing to start all over again with something new. And frankly, I think that's often the appropriate and professional response.

Of course, it's also incumbent upon responsible professionals to evaluate the "reform", whatever it might be, with an open mind and not reject new things outright just because they're new. . But if there are obvious flaws, or significant costs, it's not only appropriate, it's the right thing to do to question it, or even to resist it if you think it will be bad for your students.

However, there's no doupt that it's frustrating to anyone wanting to make change in a school system. And I understand that, too. I would be very happy if all teachers of math (i.e., all elementary teachers and all secondary math teachers) taught more in line with what I believe is necessary for students to understand and be able to do math beyond basic whole number arithmetic. But I understand teacher learning well enough to know that waltzing into a system (whether one school or a huge district such as NYC) and doing a couple of days of presentations on these methods is grossly insufficient for helping even the most willing teacher to adopt them if they are new to that teacher. The inconvenient fact for those who want change and want it now is that learning, significant earning, takes time, and this is true of teaching as well as anything else. Maybe more so, given the complexities. And time costs money. Bigger sticks or carrots, or clever new ways to apply those sticks or carrots, will not change that fact.

All this relates to buy-in and the process by which it is obtained, and the importance of sufficient stability within a system for a change to take hold and make a visible difference. (One of my favorite factoids is that early research on Head Start "showed" that is was not effective. But it had enough political backing that its enemies couldn't kill it, and eventually people learned how to do it more effectively, and later research gave stong indication that it is effective. I don't remember just how long all this took, but I think it was around 10 years--may have been 20. Put that together with the average longevity of any given "reform", and you can see the issue.) But this comment is long enough already, so I shall resist the urge to continue.

Keith, (and Jean) If you look back through my comments here, you'll find that my main goal is to empower teachers.

Remember, there are six million US teachers. That is more than four times our active military. As a group, that's a lot of power!

The question I constantly pose is, with all that power, why aren't things better? Both for teachers and for students.

The answer I always come back to is that the individual teacher needs more power. To do that, we need to break some old molds and habits.

Why does the public mistrust teachers?
1) They work for the government. We always distrust government, and wisely so.
2) We even more distrust any government employee long in the same place.
3) Teachers are under-educated. How many teachers do you know who respect their own education? If they don’t respect it, why should the public?
4) Teachers do not have the support mechanisms they need. This, to me, is key to fixing the future. Any other organization has a deep support team dedicated to making the person across the counter (telephone, website, delivery truck door, ships gangway) happy.

When I was sitting there in high school, plenty of time on my hands and little learning going on in that excess time; not being informed of such basics as who was Joan of Arc, what was the hundred years war and why in the world would an op-ed writer use the phrase “Crossing the Rubicon”, it was because the teaching staff did not have the support mechanisms to make sure that I was learning at an appropriate pace. Ditto for Margo’s kid.

And, when Bill Gates steps in, it is not because he can’t find enough other challenges to spend his billions on. A deep support mechanism would provide innovation on its own, but in a sane, methodical way.

The fifth item feeds back to the other four. Any attempt to change any of the above items will generate an instant rebuttal from the State Education Association. These talking points will make it to the schoolhouse before the rest of the public even knows a change was proposed.

The public knows that. They know that such leaders didn’t help them in their workplace, and they don’t like it that teachers still rely on this 1940’s way of thinking about workplace relationships.

Keith, you’ll note there aren’t many other conservatives on these pages. I’m here not because I lack for other projects. I came to have discussions with teachers. You can go back over my writings at Fireside learning for the same honest discussions.

At the same time, I’d say this to teachers: if you’ve never run a set of books for an organization, if you’ve never calculated a rate of return on money invested in a copier, if you’ve never planned and campaigned for a bond levy, never sat on a public board, never responded to the needs of a soldier in harms way, never forced a computer program to work or a bridge to withstand truck weight,…then have a wee bit of respect for our opinions.

John: "I refute it thus" Speak English, man. I don't speak French.

On the subject of "teacher resistance," may I suggest that you read my book "Left Back," esp pp. 337-338 for a discussion of group dynamics. In the early 1950s, certain educators discovered that a group could be manipulated by the facilitator and by the shaping of consensus. The teachers who resisted the consensus were treated as troublemakers, which had the effect of cementing the consensus, especially when the troublemakers were cast out.
That is why it is so important that we preserve free speech and listen to people who dissent, even when we think we know better. As Robert Hutchins once memorably said, "we have to keep listening, because the other person might be right."

Mark Alberstein,
I entirely agree with your point. Private schools and charter schools are not the solution for our education problems. After 20 years of promoting charter schools, 2% of public school kids are enrolled in them. Their success rate is no better than regular public schools. So why all the fuss? They are not "the answer."
If we are serious, we have to do something to improve our public education system, not to dismantle it or outsource it to whoever has the most money to play with.

Ed Jones,
There are not six million teachers, there are three million. Should be enough to wield a lot of power, but teachers are not policymakers. They are the people who interact daily with children and try to carry out the often unrealistic directives and goals of the policymakers. If Congress says that all children will be proficient by 2014, teachers are supposed to make it happen. If they can't, it's their fault, right? If Congress passes a law saying that all cities must be crime-free by 2014, will we fire all the police officers?
You should stop blaming government for all the woes of education. Some functions must be carried out by government because no one else is willing or able to do it. Study the history of American education and you will see why government runs public schools, not philanthropists or corporate titans or bank presidents.

I crunched some numbers recently and learned that the enrollment of students w/disabilities in charter high schools in Oakland is 2.9%. District-wide the figure is 10%.

California’s state measure of accountability is called the API (Academic Performance Index). The district-wide API for students w/disabilities is 470. The district-wide API for all students is 674. The goal for schools is 800+.

Gosh, I wonder how this affects the API's of the charter schools?

The California Charter Schools Association will periodically produce a "report" about charter school achievement. This organization is funded by a variety of billionaires and millionaires. It is one of the many charter school propaganda generators they created and maintain.

Yesterday I sacrificed a lot of paper and printed off copies of The Broad Foundation’s 990’s for the last several years. I believe he is the locus for all of this distress.

In the days to come, I will be spending time going over the figures with a fine tooth comb. I can already tell what's going on by just a glance. If you ever wish to follow where the money goes, you may access the 990’s for the Broad, Gates, Walton Family, Dell, etc. and other foundations at http://nccsdataweb.urban.org/PubApps/990search.php?bmf=1

It is becoming more and more apparent to me that true public school supporters are being absolutely overwhelmed by an unnatural force. As one of those supporters, I have started to relate to how someone in the French Resistance may have felt.

Broad played a key role Joel Klein’s appointment as New York schools chancellor. The way I view his $2,000,000 Broad Prize is as a plantation-owner's reward to an overseer’s job well done. Broad’s wealth is listed at $6.7 billion. His gift is like a person with a net worth of $50,000 giving $15 to someone they like. Do the math yourself.

Yesterday, I wrote to PBS to complain about the Charlie Rose programming. Here is the email address in case you would like to do the same: [email protected] I cc’ed the PBS ombudsman, Michael Getler, too.

In the past nine months, Charlie Rose has had three full-hour “education crisis” conversations: Wendy Kopp (with Bob Wise on 7/1/08), Michelle Rhee (7/14/08), and Arne Duncan (3/11/09). They are part of his series of conversations about the “crisis” in our public schools, underwritten by, none-other-than-guess-who, the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation. Paranoia is not paranoia, folks. It’s right on the mark.

I spent a lot of time looking over the Charlie Rose website, and noticed he has also had a lot of conversations with Joel Klein, although they were before the Broad series. Reviewing the education archives I could only find interviews w/ Deborah Meyer (for a 14 minute segment on 5/15/95) and Jonathan Kozol (for a 10 minute segment 11/16/95). This is quite surprising considering the many important national education issues and views that have emerged in recent years.

For a start, I vote for Diane Ravitch and Richard Rothstein to get a full hour on that show. If I was living in NYC, I’d be going to 731 Lexington Ave. and making myself heard.

Jean, Brian and Diana,

I'm enjoying your defense of non-conforming teachers. Our school is in the throes of implementing a raft of "research-based" initiatives, including Professional Learning Communities. The mood is definitely, "you'd better get with the program and be a team player." We've eliminated most whole faculty meetings replacing them with "focus group" or grade-level meetings, each with a prescribed format and agenda. I suspect part of the reason is to stifle dissent --to not give the few cranky old salts like myself a venue to raise doubts and corrupt the minds of the enthused and innocent younger teachers. The whole staff meetings that we do have are rigidly scripted --there's a printed agenda that the principal hews to. "Dissent" is never on the agenda.

In line with one of Diana's posts, one bit of dissent I'd love to bring up at a whole staff meeting is to question the research that allegedly supports the programs our superintendent is foisting upon us. The little investigation I've done shows that it doesn't support the programs. Or the research itself seems fraudulent. For example, on the Department of Education website I was able to ferret out the fact that the character education curriculum that we'd purchased had been endorsed by the Dep't. of Ed. based on two studies performed by the very businesswoman who owned the company that made the curriculum. Aren't these the kinds of matters we should discuss before "buying-in" to any major change?

Promoting critical thinking is the official dogma of the educational establishment, and yet actual critical thinking is viewed as a nuisance by the very people who ardently advocate for it (not to suggest that only teachers are prone to invidious groupthink; just look at "the best and the brightest" on Wall Street.)

I haven't had a chance to watch it yet, but here is Charlie Rose's March 2004 interview with Eli Broad: http://www.charlierose.com/view/interview/1531

"A discussion with Eli Broad, chairman of AIG Retirement Services Inc. and founder/chairman of KB Home, about improving primary and secondary education and his career in business."

Speaking of hard-working teachers, here's a recent article on the topic, claiming US teachers work longer hours than their G-8 peers:



The issue is not "non-conforming" teachers. I can recall the director of the social service agency where I worked countering the mid-seventies defense of non-conformist staff coming from wet-behind-the-ears pseudo-hippie intellectuals (that would include myself and a coterie of my peers). Then she would reel off a list of "non-conformists" for whom she had enormous respect: Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr, Mother Jones. This issue is whether the "non-conformity" is carried out with honesty and in furtherance of a philosophy in line with our (as an agency) beliefs. Sitting through a staff meeting and refusing to engage in the decision-making process (out of fear of being "shot down," or resistance to the process, or some other variation on non-belief in the ability to bring about change, or having a responsibility to do so), but then sabotaging the decisions made by others through noncompliance is not responsible, honest, or defensible. Somewhere along the line you have to decide if you are going to be a freedom figher or a mercenary. You cannot claim to be a freedom fighter when the going is easy but be hamstrung by the requirements of being a mercenary.

And sometimes, at the end of an honest struggle with peers, it is necessary to go along, and hope that the experience will be one that produces learning. Having engaged in such processes not only with peers, but having led children and teen-agers, I would suggest that there is an early tendency to believe that if I cannot have MY way, there has not been a fair process. I have seen young groups get stuck here, unable to make a decision because one faction is holding out for swimming and another is holding out for listening to music. In the end, the result is sometimes that the decision-making process eats up all of the available time to do either. One of the luxuries of working with children and youth is that it is often possible to allow the experience of such consequences. In a workplace of professionals, well the work must go on and sometimes someone must make a decision, even with misgivings about the ability of the group to act on it. Sometimes this has to figure in--A would be the better solution, but B would be less damaging if half the group chooses not to participate.

I would absolutely support the use of agendas, especially with groups of adults who are unaccustomed to accepting responsibility for making decisions. It is very easy to confuse participation with a whine-fest if no one has responsibility for seeing that work gets done.

I could bring in examples of the damage done by the confusion between honest discussion/dissent and irresponsible non-conformity (or anarchy, or an anything goes atmosphere). Several years ago, my district adopted a "program" (not really a program--it is not "owned" by any corporation, rather a set of well-researched principles) that if implemented would have great promise of preventing problems with discipline. The available data (numbers of suspensions/expulsions, disparities by race, gender and disability status, as well as by grade level and building) show that there is a problem. The official union stance is one of wanting a place to send the bad kids--and the district has in fact provided this, several times over.

As the union tends to be at the table when decisions are made, one can only assume that the union has signed off on this adoption as well (either because of agreement or some trade-off of something else). While I can easily concur that the professional development (a train the trainer approach) is inadequate, and below that recommended by the folks who provide the tech support, the approach is exceedingly well documented, has been mandated for use with kids on IEPs for a long time, and there should be no lack of information available through other venues.

The superintendent reports regularly to the Board that the district is "doing" XYZ approach--following an implementation plan, and reports on the steps (training provided, plans developed, etc). As a parent who sets foot in buildings and has the more than occasional conversation with teachers and principals, I can tell you that, at least in the buildings I have been in, the district is NOT "doing" XYZ. When I ask the principal about it, the principal will say, "oh, yes, we are 'doing' XYZ." This is the "right" answer. Any probing might reveal that there is a committee working on that, or a plan for doing that. Talking to a teacher reveals--oh, I'm not on that committee, I'm not really sure what they are doing--or I haven't been scheduled for training yet. This is a school-wide approach. If no teachers have been affected, the school is not "doing" XYZ. In one school apparently there was some "dissent," because apparently the committee was dissolved and a new one put together--no one is sure (or willing to say) why.

Now--as the Supt makes reports to the Board, one of my first questions, as a parent, is what level of "buy in" from teachers has been achieved. Strategically, there are all kinds of ways to work with insufficient buy in. One is to pilot in a few schools who are willing to go there. There is nothing like success to motivate buy-in. Another is to bring in folks from other schools who have experienced success. Another would be to turn the solution (to the discipline problem) over to the individual buildings to solve--and expect them to do so.

There are risks--teachers have an enormous capacity to dismiss the success of others--their kids are different, easier, or their parents care more, or the building is newer or doesn't get as much rain, or people like them better. At some point, someone has to think about whether the kids are being well served by adults who are stuck in some kind of non-decision-making rut.

And make no mistake--kids are harmed. I have sat through too many IEP meetings in which teachers raised no objection to things that they had no intention of carrying out (except the part about calling the parent when something goes wrong--there is always universal agreement on that one)--or didn't attend at all. The individualized plan goes into the drawer, everyone banking on their superior experience to carry them through, doing what they have always done. When things start to fall apart (and that phone call is made), there may be some private acquiescence that the plan wasn't followed (didn't know, don't have to, but he did...). A plan that is followed but doesn't work, can be revised. A plan that is written, filed and not followed is a serious waste of everyone's time. And nothing ever gets better (but by then it's the end of the school year and the kid--and their parent--become somebody else's problem).

Everything you describe in your last post is real. And you are right to identify it as a problem. But there is another version of events that also is real, e.g. a district adopts a program currently fashionable, based on scant evidence, concerned mostly with representing to the world that "something" is being done rather than trying to actually making some substantive change in the school. Some teachers raise objections to this change, get labeled as resistant, and the change, which after all was mostly cosmetic in the first place, gets pushed through any way. Lesson for the teacher: 1. The change will get pushed through no matter what, your only choice is whether to continue to irritate the leaders with your objects. 2. Changes initiated from the outside, are mostly concerned with how things look than with how things are.

Now, I certainly don't represent that a teacher coming to these conclusions is always correct--simply that it can be seen as a reasonable response to an absurd situation.

But the hard part is this: How do you develop a set of policies, operating procedures, group norms, whatever--that don't let teachers duck the questions in Margo/Mom's case, but also don't mean that they have to swallow every newest/latest trendy reform (whether good, bad, or ugly) proposed by elites from outside of education.

Some, I imagine, may think that this is an easy question that can be solved with charters, choice, and more/better research. I tend to think it is much harder than that. (Whole sections of Deborah's In Schools We Trust, of course, discuss issues like this.)


In saluting the non-conformists, I didn't mean to stick up for those querulous teachers who simply obstruct without offering a better idea of their own (I used the term "cranky old salt" tongue-in-cheek). I think I know the sort you are talking about --the ones who argue in bad faith. But sometimes people complain and criticize with excellent reasons.

I meant simply to point out that listening to the voices of feisty, critically-thinking "outsider" teachers could help prevent schools from willy-nilly hopping on the bandwagon of every new educational fad, and that our administration seems to be taking active steps to prevent such voices from being heard.


I absolutely agree in the value of hearing all the voices. I would simply maintain that those voices have an obligation to speak up in the appropriate arena and to keep quiet elsewhere. Sometimes good fights are lost. But no one is served by using this as an excuse for undermining decisions. But I suspect that a part of the difficulty is that there is not universal agreement between the older and wiser group, or the younger and bolder group or the teachers as opposed to the administration. Abdicating to the hierarchy allows everyone to maintain their own opinion and the good opinion of their peers.


I am a great admirer of your book, Left Back, so when you mentioned pages 337-338 as a discussion on group dynamics I immediately took notice. I didn't remember previously reading anything in your book on that. When I reread those pages, they were very familiar, but when I first read them a few years ago I did not think of those pages as a discussion of group dynamics. Rather it was a discussion of the tactics used by one group (loosely defined, "reformers") in one particular era and in one particular issue. Your description is very believable. I suspect we have all been victims of such aggressive and unenlightened tactics. I would certainly describe the phenomenon (at least the part I am interested in) as “group discipline”.

But a more comprehensive analysis of group dynamics would also be very helpful, and if that has ever been done, I don't know where. A discussion of the “Abilene paradox” (was that on this blog, or another?) is a welcome addition to what we know about people acting in groups. But surely there is a lot more yet to know.

My perspective is roughly as follows. Man, by evolution, is a very social animal. Part of that socialness is a propensity to form groups, both formal and informal. This propensity has evolved as a result of substantial survival value that comes from collective action. We have innate propensities to act in certain ways, but these propensities can vary considerably from individual to individual. We have expectations of group responsibilities, which again varies greatly from individual to individual, and can cause a lot of friction when they conflict. There are innate ways of dealing with these conflicts, and there are cultural ways, and there are inventive individuals who craft new ways. All of this is important in human life, but, from my perspective at least, not well understood.

I have a hypothesis that “groupers” (those who by nature want to form groups and act in groups) are much more comfortable with enforcing group discipline (which I realize certainly needs definition) by whatever means might be found, whereas “non-groupers” (those, like myself, who have a low propensity to form groups or work in groups) place a much lower value on group discipline and a much higher value on being free of those “whatever means”. Thus when a grouper is given subtle, or not so subtle, hints to “get with the program”, he does. He hops on the bandwagon and waves the flag. But when a non-grouper is subjected to that same treatment, he rebels, or at least resents it.

I’m not sure I have explained what I am trying to say very well, but the phenomenon I am trying to address is certainly described in your pages 337-8, and suggested in a lot of what I read on the educational blogs. It is very evident in concerns about “political correctness”. It is evident in my negative opinion of “collaborative effort” in education, and I notice that I am not entirely alone in this.

In an article on my website, “Let’s Do It Together”, I argue that groupers and non-groupers don’t understand each other very well. The issues are subtle, but run deep. The issues, in my humble opinion, are important to teachers in their daily classroom activities, and are important to educational policy at any level. So I hope we see more discussion on these things.

Two comments above have been fermenting in my mind for the past day. Ben F., in his comment of March 26, 5:21 pm, presents a picture of an educational idea being pushed on resistant teachers, and he describes the "group dynamics" that interest me a great deal. But for the moment it is not the "group dynamics" that I am interested in, but the idea of "resistant teachers". Jean, in her comment of March 26, 12:19 pm does a very good job of explaining why teachers might be "resistant". And I think there are many other comments on this and other blogs that touch on this same thing, an educational idea being pushed on resistant teachers.

Who is doing the pushing? I can be accused of painting with an overly broad brush if I picture "ed school" as doing the pushing, but I think there is some justification in it. If it is not "ed school", could I say it's the "ed school crowd"? I'm not sure. Anyway, the point I am trying to get to is ed school should be in the business of analyzing what goes on in classrooms, not dictating it. Ed school and its practitioners should be in the business of learning from teachers, not teaching them. I am talking of competent, experienced, practicing teachers now, not prospective teachers. If an education professor wants to be of service, if he wants to be more help than hindrance, then I think he should consider himself an analyst and interpreter of what practicing teachers do, not an dictator of what they should do. Indeed that would be the last thing he should be. A scholar of pedagogy should no more dictate what teacher should do than a chemist should try to dictate what molecules should do, or a botanist should dictate what a tree should do. Study your subject. Describe your subject. Analyze your subject. Interpret your subject to me and others. But don't tell us what to do.

B. F. Skinner once said "the mouse is always right", or something to that effect, meaning that the psychologist should study the mouse's behavior, what it actually does in various situations, not expect the mouse to do what the psychologist thinks it should do. The mouse is not your servant. And if the mouse is your servant then you are an animal trainer, not a scientist. Similarly the education professor should assume that an experienced teacher is doing things for reasons which seem valid, even compelling, and try to figure out those reasons. Indeed the very idea of a "resistant teacher" brings to my mind the picture of a competent, conscientious teacher acting on the basis of what he or she considers good, or even compelling, reasons. I don't get such a flattering picture of the person pushing a new practice on that teacher. The picture there is of a psychologist blaming the mouse when the experiment doesn’t go as expected.

There is a book I learned about some years ago, "How Teachers Taught", by Larry Cuban. I learned about it perhaps a year before I managed to get a copy to read. When I did read it, it was a big disappointment. I thought he would discuss classroom practice in 1860, for example, or 1910, or 1930, analyzing the ideas of teachers in those times, their thoughtworld, their cultural values, and the societal values and expectations of those times, and the limitations of materials and resources of those times, and show how all these things were translated into pedagogy. Unfortunately it was a history of attempts at "reform", and their failures. That seemed odd. There is no mystery to me why they failed. They failed because they were products of the ideology of progressivism, not of critical thinking about teaching, learning, and school practices. Cuban’s perspective seemed all wrong. Instead of analyzing those failures, and learning from them, he seemed only to lament them. The mouse was wrong, he seemed to think.

I am a frequent critic of what I call the "ed school mentality". To be a constructive critic, and not just a mud slinger, I should have in mind what I would want ed school to do. What I want ed school to do is to study education. I don't want an ideology of what "should" be, I want a carefully reasoned and deep analysis of what actually is. I want an explanation of what good teachers (and bad) do, and why they do it. I want a carefully reasoned and deep analysis of how people learn, and how learning may best be managed. When this is accomplished there will be no need for the coercive "group dynamics" that Ben F describes, or that Diane describes (page 337-8) in her book.

The analysis in Left Back of the role of group dynamics in the curriculum change movement (pp. 335-342) is so rich, one could read the passage, the sources cited, their sources, and so on for years. I have barely begun, and I don't foresee finishing any time soon. Anyone interested in this topic should read one of the works cited, Human Relations in Curriculum Change, ed. Kenneth D. Benne and Bozidar Muntyan (New York, 1951). (Brian, I think you'd find this quite interesting.)

The authors in the Benne and Muntyan volume assume that curriculum change is good and that the teachers should be brought to accept it. One of the authors, Alice Miel, characterizes those resistant to change as uninformed and naive. She recommends "utilizing" dissatisfaction in order to motivate change. If certain people are satisfied with the way things are, it is good and right to arouse dissatisfaction in them, according to Miel.

Miel recomments "studying" these people in order to determine the right strategy for changing them (Benne and Muntyan, p. 61): "Like all others, persons in the satisfied group should be studied to determine their present motivations. Then, somehow, they must be helped to acquire ever stronger convictions as to the need for changes in the schools. When they have arrived at that state of dissatisfaction, fear of personal inconvenience will already have been greatly reduced. Growth in socialization will have occurred as self-interest became more identified with group interest."

Miel and the other authors do not stop to consider that certain programs for change may be rash, one-sided, and destructive. In the chapter titled "The Administrator Moves Toward Cooperation," co-authors Arnold Meier, Alice Davis, and Florence Cleary write (Benne and Muntyan, p. 263):

"Many other questions, expressed or unexpressed, may block teachers as they 'begin to work democratically on their problems.' To say that many of these questions are petty does not invalidate them. They must be faced. The principal must take time to examine them patiently with his faculty. Implications of proposed action must be considered and the principal must be willing to wait until teachers have gained security before much progress can be made."

They suggest that the principal should examine the questions carefully in order to move forward with the change. They do not consider that the change in question might be deeply flawed. Why not?

Another interesting source (cited not in a footnote in The Troubled Crusade is a 1964 doctoral thesis by Robert William Coleman, Kurt Lewin's Theory of Social Change Applied to Curriculum Change. I read Coleman's thesis with a mixture of fascination and dismay.

Coleman continues the argument of Benne, Muntyan, Miel, et al. that to change a curriculum, one must change the people. Drawing on Lewin's theories, Coleman lays out techniques for attitude change: “cultural isolation” of a particular subgroup that will pioneer the change; emphasis on group discussion (which will employ the forces of group conformity); removal of resistance to change; creation of dissatisfaction with the current state of things; and so forth. He cites experiments suggesting that people will accept a given change, product, or idea much more readily if they discuss it in a group than if they are simply given the information.

Coleman refers throughout his thesis to Lewin’s mode, which is based superficially on topology and vector analysis. Anyone with the power to adopt or reject a change is a “gatekeeper”; hence, the first step in any change is to identify the gatekeepers. Each gatekeeper exists within a “force field” with positive and negative valences. To promote a change, a change leader must alter the force field of a given region, as well as of the alternative regions. For instance, if a region has negative valences because of lack of funding, it would help to secure funding.

Most disturbing is Coleman’s discussion of group dynamics. He writes: “After the gatekeepers are identified and studied, decisions must be made as to how to make the desired changes. The attempt may be made to change the individual as an isolated individual or as a member of a group.” What makes him so sure that these individuals need to be changed? What gives certain individuals the right to analyze and change others?

Some may protest that these processes are really not sinister, that they are instead democratic attempts to bring teachers to genuine consensus, and that in a democracy we are always trying to change each other. But such efforts at persuasion should take the form of honest, open discussion and debate, not group manipulation. Moreover, all too often the change in question is not well supported and those who resist it have very good reasons for doing so, as Ben and others have pointed out on this thread.

Where have these curriculum changes led? Here's a description from Left Back, pp. 340-341:

"What did all of this activity produce? In 1950, Hollis Caswell tallied up the victories: Battle Creek, Michigan, had halved the percentage of students enrolled in the college preparatory curriculum, while simultaneously introducing a health program and a tenth-grade course in 'basic living.' Denver, which had been a pioneer of curriculum revision in the 1920s, had tossed out the course of study prepared by teachers then and replaced it with a firm commitment to cooperative planning of curricula by teachers and pupils. Kingsport, Tennessee, had abandoned its 'highly traditional curriculum with an academic emphasis at the high school level,' whose chief goal had been 'subject-matter achievement.' Many committee meetings, study groups, and consultants later, the Kingsport schools also dropped the study of mythology and Hebrew history from the elementary curriculum; replaced the separate study of history and geography with a course in social studies; substituted narrative reports for letter grades; mixed slow and fast learners in the same classes; and agreed to kmeep on revising the curriculum continuously."

Note that not all these changes are inherently bad; but taken all together they signify both a weakening of the curriculum and a capitulation to a larger trend. The saddest part is that schools dropped valuable and beautiful parts of their curriculum in the name of change. Those who defended what they loved were scrutinized, analyzed, and subjected to endless group sessions. This practice continues today.

Diana Senechal

Be careful with how and whose stats are accepted. I am no Bush fan by no means; however, not until NCLB did educators bother to concern themselves directly with meaningful accountability to those students belonging to subgroups.

Prior to NCLB, many educators generally and painfully lacked knowledge, use, and even belief in stats and research. Success was determined by the outcome of those expected to be successful (Did they fall under the bell curve where they were suppose to fall?). The bell curve had been the measure as well as the goal to determine a successful outcome.

Todays educators are beginning to use, generate, and value research and data. "According to the data...," is beginning to replace "I feel...." They are looking for and working toward that skewed bell curve with all students having a successful educational experience.

The downside of NCLB indeed exists (many weaknesses); however, the upside is that students who hadn't counted in determining the success of the educational process do count now.

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The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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